Weekly Meeting - August 14: The Decennial Census in 2020

Speaker: Margaret Leary succeeded Beverley Pooley as Director of the Michigan Law School Library in 1984 and retired in 2011. She was its Associate Director from 1982 to 1984 and served as Assistant Director from 1973 to 1981. She holds a B.A. from Cornell University, a M.A. from the University of Minnesota School of Library Science, and a J.D. from William Mitchell College of Law. Her tenure saw the Library enter the digital age, computerizing its card catalogue at the same time as books were recatalogued using the same system as other University libraries employed, and installing Lexis/Nexis terminals as the standard case law research tool. She oversaw planning for and construction of the underground addition to the Library that opened in 1981. Her book Giving It All Away: The Story of William W. Cook and His Michigan Law Quad was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2011.

The decennial Census is mandated by Article 1, section 2 of the United States Constitution. Seats in the House of Representatives are reapportioned following each Census. Census figures must be based on an actual count of persons: citizens, non-citizen legal residents, non-citizen long-term visitors, and undocumented immigrants. That is not as clear-cut as it seems. Should college students be counted as part of the population in the state where they are attending school or in the state where they are from? Should federal prisoners be counted as part of the population in the state where they are serving time or in the state where they were living when convicted? These and similar questions resurface every ten years.

In the 1990s, there controversy was surrounding alleged undercounting of African-Americans in particular. The Census Bureau estimated that in 1970 over six percent of African-Americans went uncounted, compared with two percent of whites. Some argued that modern sampling techniques should be used so that more accurate and complete data can be inferred. Others argued against such sampling techniques on the ground that political appointees overseeing the Census Bureau would be tempted to manipulate the sampling formulas. In 1999, the United States Supreme Court settled that dispute. The decennial Census cannot be conducted using sampling techniques. Department of Commerce v. United States House of Representatives, 525 U.S. 316 (1999). They can be used in the more frequently conducted American Community Surveys, though, because those surveys are not mandated by the Constitution.

Planning for the 2020 Census additionally has been thrown into controversy by the Trump Administration’s proposal to include a citizenship question on the census questionnaire. Asking respondents to say whether or not they are United States citizens potentially might lead to an undercount by deterring undocumented immigrants from allowing themselves to be counted for feat that they would be deported. Last month, the United States Supreme Court precluded the Commerce Department from adding a citizenship question because the asserted reasons for doing so were specious. Department of Commerce v. New York, No. 19-866 (June 27, 2019).

Our speaker will review these and similar issues surrounding preparations underway for the 2020 Census.